[Marxism] The Truth About Zero Dark Thirty

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 22 08:09:01 MST 2012

December 21, 2012
The Truth About Zero Dark Thirty
By Alex Gibney [2]

It's difficult for one filmmaker to criticize another. That's a job best 
left to critics. However, in the case of Zero Dark Thirty, about the 
hunt for Osama bin Laden, an issue that is central to the film -- 
torture -- is so important that I feel I must say something. Mark Boal 
and Kathryn Bigelow have been irresponsible and inaccurate in the way 
they have treated this issue in their film. I am not alone in that view. 
Senators Carl Levin, Dianne Feinstein and John McCain wrote a letter to 
Michael Lynton, the Chairman of Sony Pictures, accusing the studio of 
misrepresenting the facts and "perpetuating the myth that torture is 
effective," and asking for the studio to correct the false impression 
created by the film. The film conveys the unmistakable conclusion that 
torture led to the death of bin Laden. That's wrong and dangerously so, 
precisely because the film is so well made.

Let me say, as many others have, that the film is a stylistic 
masterwork, an inspiration in terms of technique from the lighting, 
camera, acting and viscerally realistic production and costume design. 
Also, as a screen story, it is admirable for its refusal to funnel the 
hunt for bin Laden into a series of movie clichés -- love interests, 
David versus Goliath struggles, etc. More than that, the film does an 
admirable job of showing how complex was the detective work that led to 
the death of bin Laden: a combination of tips from foreign intelligence, 
sleuthing through old files, monitoring signals from emails and cell 
phones (SIGINT) and mining human intelligence on the ground (HUMINT). 
It's all the more infuriating therefore, because the film is so 
attentive to the accuracy of details -- including the mechanism of 
brutal interrogations -- that it is so sloppy when it comes to 
portraying the efficacy of torture. That may seem like a small thing but 
it is not. Because when we go to war, our politicians will be guided by 
our popular will. And if we believe that torture "got" bin Laden, then 
we will be more prone to accept the view that a good "end" can justify 
brutal "means."

But torture did not lead us to bin Laden. For other analyses of the way 
the factual record diverges from Boal/Bigelow version, I recommend 
pieces by Jane Mayer and Peter Bergen, who are far more experienced 
journalists than I. In addition, one can also refer to the press release 
of the Senate Intelligence Committee's study of the CIA's Detention and 
Interrogation Program, which concludes that, following the examination 
of more than six million pages of records from the Intelligence 
Community, the CIA did not obtain its first clues about the identity of 
bin Laden's courier from "CIA detainees subjected to coercive 
interrogation techniques."

I want to focus my concern on the way in which the film is fundamentally 
reckless when it comes to the subject of torture. It's skillful, but not 
profound. The reason for this is threefold.

1) The very style of the film

Beautifully lit, the film often shot with a handheld camera to emphasize 
the cinematic urgency of a cinema verite documentary, which lends a 
false sense of "truthiness" to the narrative. This is one of the reasons 
I bristled when Mark Boal told Dexter Filkins that he shouldn't be held 
responsible for the content of the film because ZD30 is "a movie not a 
documentary." Well, if the notion of a documentary is so distasteful, 
why shoot it like one?

There are other mistakes in that careless remark. It implies that 
because "movies" (unlike Boal, I would include documentaries, for better 
and for worse, in that category) have an obligation to entertain, they 
don't have to be nitpickers for accuracy. Yet, on the other hand, 
Bigelow says that this film is a "journalistic account." So which one is 
it? You can't have it both ways. After all, ZD30 is being promoted as a 
riveting and truthful account of the killing of UBL. Would it be as 
appealing to viewers if it were "just a movie" about the hunt for 
fictional terrorist named "Osama bin Bad Guy?"

Every film is faced with the enemy of time. Only so much story can fit 
into the 90-150 minutes of time that moviegoers are willing to stay in 
their seats. Naturally, compression is necessary. So are the exclusion 
and amalgamation of characters so that the viewer does not become 
bewildered. To paraphrase Werner Herzog, filmmakers don't need to pursue 
a bookkeeper's truth in which every figure is accounted for. Rather they 
can seek a "poetic truth" is which essential meaning is revealed to 
viewers. But it's a cop-out for Boal and Bigelow to say they shouldn't 
be held to account for the meaning of their film because "it's just a 
movie," and/or because it's a "journalistic account." In the context of 
the final result, neither statement is credible. When it comes to 
torture, the film fails the truth test for both accountants and poets.

2) The Truth of the Matter

ZD30 opens in darkness, with the soundtrack haunted by the voices of 
victims and rescue workers on 9/11. Then the film cuts to a CIA "black 
site," where a man named Ammar is being tortured by a CIA agent named 
Dan (played by Jason Clarke) while another agent, Maya (well acted by 
Jessica Chastain) looks on. For me, along with the very ending, this was 
one of the best moments in the film. The juxtaposition of the agony of 
9/11 with the payback that followed -- waterboarding detainees, walking 
them around in dog collars (recall Lyndie England) and stuffing them in 
small plywood boxes -- perfectly captured a bitter poetic truth about 
how members of the Bush Administration responded to tragedy. They built 
a hard-hearted and soft-headed program of state-sanctioned torture that 
was likely motivated by revenge, rather than legal precedents, moral 
principles and well-tested, tough-minded lawful techniques.

So give points to Boal and Bigelow for not pussyfooting around. They 
make it clear that the CIA tortured people as part of a "detainee 
program." But what's distressing -- given that tough-minded beginning -- 
is that the filmmakers don't ever question the efficacy of torture. We 
don't see how corrupting it was, how many mistakes were made. Instead, 
the narrative engine of Boal's detective story is kick-started by 
torture. In the film Dan uses a trick and the implied threat of torture 
to force "Ammar" to reveal the nickname of bin Laden's courier, Abu 
Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, a man who ultimately helped lead investigators to bin 

Mark Boal has responded to critics by saying that, in the film, the 
actionable intelligence from Ammar, was obtained "over the civilized 
setting of a lunch." But that's disingenuous. Because the conversation 
occurs after brutal torture, the implication is that Ammar provides 
information because he doesn't want to trade his hummus for a wet 
washcloth and a sojourn in a plywood box.

"Ammar" is a composite character likely modeled after two characters. 
The first was probably Hassan Ghul, who was interrogated by the CIA in 
2004 with coercive techniques (NOT including waterboarding) and who did 
provide some details about Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. But according to 
Senator Dianne Feinstein (who has access to all of the classified files) 
all of the vital information was provided prior to the rough stuff. The 
first clues about al-Kuwaiti were obtained in 2002 through the use of 
traditional interrogation methods.

The other possible source for the discovery of the name of al-Kuwaiti 
was Mohammed al-Qahtani, the so-called 20th hijacker, who was captured 
in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo, where he was interrogated first 
by the FBI and then by the military, who were given special permission 
by Donald Rumsfeld to use more aggressive techniques set out in the 
so-called "First Special Interrogation Plan." According to documents 
revealed by WikiLeaks, al-Qahtani did mention the name of al-Kuwaiti. 
But according to the FBI, Al-Qahtani provided all his useful information 
prior to his "special interrogation." Al-Qahtani was never waterboarded 
but he was subjected to a brutal and often bizarre 49-day interrogation 
at Gitmo, that was documented in logs revealed by Adam Zagorin in Time 
Magazine. (We portrayed portions of this interrogation in my film, "Taxi 
to the Dark Side.")

Many writers have focused on the brutality of the al-Qahtani 
interrogation. They were right to do so. After all, even Susan Crawford, 
a Bush Administration official, ultimately admitted that his treatment 
was, in fact, "torture." Using techniques loosely based on the CIA's 
Kubark Interrogation Manual, and influenced by CIA's loony new playbook 
for questioning prisoners in the global war on terror, interrogators 
kept al-Qahtani from sleeping, force fed him liquids which caused him to 
urinate on himself and came close to killing him. But what many have 
overlooked is what happened to the interrogators during the al-Qahtani 
interrogation. They fell victim to what is called "force drift" (a 
tendency for interrogators to increase brutality when they don't get 
answers) and resorted to increasingly bizarre techniques. What are we to 
make of the fact that interrogators tried to get al-Qahtani to crack by 
using authorized "techniques" such as "invasion of space by female"; 
putting panties on his head, making him wear a "smiley-face" mask (I'm 
not making this up) and giving him dance lessons; making him watch 
puppet shows of him having sex with Osama bin Laden, administering 
forced enemas and making him crawl around like a dog.

The point I'm making is that, when the full history of "Enhanced 
Interrogation Techniques" is told we will see that it was not only 
brutal and counterproductive but ridiculous. The CIA waterboarded Abu 
Zubaydah 83 times and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times. Considering the 
repetition, just how effective were those techniques? And how good does 
the CIA look for insisting on mindless repetition of useless tactics?

But in ZD30, Boal and Bigelow have a problem. In the logic of a "movie," 
it's difficult for viewers root for people who are making terrible 
mistakes, have become corrupted or who are showcasing needless 
brutality. As a result, while the filmmakers do showcase American 
brutality, they suggest that it was necessary. Over and over again, Maya 
watches DVDs of interrogations using waterboarding and other forms of 
torture as if these were useful techniques which provided actionable 
intelligence. She herself uses a fellow operative to be her "muscle," 
punching a detainee when she does not get the answer she's looking for. 
Absent any other kind of interrogation, viewers of this film must 
conclude that beating the hell out of people is the only way to get 
answers. As one detainee says in the film, "I have no wish to be 
tortured again. Ask me a question and I will answer it." Sounds like 
torture works, right? But as we know from the Senate and former CIA 
Director Leon Panetta, who wrote McCain in May 2011, that EITs did not 
play any more than an incidental role in the discovery of UBL.

No main characters in the film ever question the efficacy or corrupting 
effects of torture. Just the opposite. When Barack Obama appears -- on 
television in a CIA conference room -- he remarks that prohibiting 
torture is "part and parcel of an effort to regain America's moral 
stature in the world." In the foreground, another female CIA agent, 
Jessica (played by Jennifer Ehle) shakes her head in disgust.

Later, a CIA figure nicknamed "the Wolf" makes a speech on how his 
efforts to get bin Laden have been undermined by the sissies in 
Congress. "As you know," he says, Abu Ghraib and Gitmo fucked us. The 
detainee program is now flat. We've got Senators jumping out of our 

This line not wrong, in the sense that, in the context of a movie, it 
conveys the views of a particular character and, further, accurately 
represents those in the CIA -- and there were many -- who defended EITs. 
But what is pernicious about it is that the statement exists in a 
vacuum, as if, for the tough-minded folks who had "boots on the ground," 
to use the expression Bigelow likes so much, there was no other possible 
point of view. But that's wrong.

3) What is Missing

When it comes to torture, what is irresponsible about ZD30 is what it 

The FBI and a great many CIA agents vigorously opposed the so-called 
"enhanced interrogation techniques" introduced by the CIA at the behest 
of the Bush Administration. These techniques were derived from the SERE 
program (SERE stands for "Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape) in 
which soldiers who are at risk of capture are administered "harsh 
techniques" they are likely to face at the hands of the enemy, including 
waterboarding. Originally, many of these "techniques" were derived from 
brutal interrogations used by Chinese and Soviet Communists who most 
frequently used them to obtain false confessions for political purposes. 
As part of this CIA "program," three individuals were waterboarded: Abd 
al-Rahim al-Nashiri, Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

Advocates of the CIA program like to cite Abu Zubaydah as an example of 
how waterboarding worked. But in fact, before Abu Zubaydah was 
waterboarded 83 times, he was interrogated by an FBI agent named Ali 
Soufan. After Soufan read Abu Zubaydah his Miranda rights, he used 
lawful interrogation techniques to get all the valuable information he 
had to offer, including the identity of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. More 
relevant to this film is the fact that KSM, during his waterboarding 
program, vigorously denied the importance of al-Kuwaiti. So confident 
was the CIA in the effectiveness of waterboarding -- despite all 
evidence to the contrary -- that the CIA actually assumed that KSM was 
telling the truth about the unimportance of al-Kuwaiti, when he was 
actually lying. The CIA's unjustified confidence in waterboarding likely 
derailed the hunt for bin Laden until the interrogation of Ghul.

ZB30 also withholds how much damage was done by the false information 
obtained by waterboarding. Ibn al-Sheik al Libi was being interrogated 
successfully by the FBI when an impatient Bush Administration demanded 
that the CIA take over. The CIA wrapped him in duct tape and packed him 
in a wooden box to be shipped to Cairo where he was waterboarded. As a 
result he offered up information linking al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein 
which was used by Colin Powell when he gave his famous speech before the 
UN. Partially as a result, we invaded Iraq. Later on, the CIA admitted 
that al-Libi had given false information. But by then we already had 
"boots on the ground" in Iraq.

Kathryn Bigelow must have been delighted when she discovered a female 
CIA agent was at the heart of the hunt for bin Laden. But compare Maya's 
infallibility in the film with the case of another female CIA agent -- a 
redhead like Jessica Chastain -- who was such a fan of waterboarding 
that she asked to "sit in" on the slow motion drowning of KSM. (As Jane 
Mayer notes in her book, "The Dark Side," she was rebuffed by a superior 
who told her that waterboarding is not a spectator sport.) She 
supervised the kidnapping and torture of a man named Khaled el-Masri in 
the CIA's "Salt Pit," a black site in Afghanistan. Despite a valid 
German passport, the agent insisted on his continued torment and 
incarceration (despite the protests of Condelezza Rice) until it was 
finally revealed that the agent had mixed him up with another man named 
al-Masri. (Whoops, we tortured a man over a spelling mistake!) Without 
apology, he was then dropped on a lonely road in Albania to try to pick 
up the pieces of his life. Just this month, the European Court of Human 
Rights in Strasbourg declared his treatment at the hands of the CIA to 
have been torture -- the first time this has happened. Where did we see 
this kind of cruel incompetence treated in ZD30?

If I am veering a bit far from the plot of the movie, I am doing so to 
make a point about a missed dramatic opportunity. Shaw once said that an 
argument between a right and a wrong is melodrama but that an argument 
between two rights is drama. When it came to the subject of torture in 
ZD30, there was no argument at all. And so a great dramatic opportunity 
was missed.

Manhola Dargis of the NY Times defends the accounts of torture in the 
film because they serve "as a claim -- one made cinematically rather 
than with speeches -- that these interrogation methods are unreliable 
when it comes to producing actionable information." Then she says that 
to "omit [scenes of torture] from ZD30would have been a reprehensible 
act of moral cowardice." Whoa! I haven't heard anyone argue that the 
scenes themselves should have been omitted. But despite Dargis' vivid 
imagination, there is no cinematic evidence in the film that EITs led to 
false information -- lies that were swallowed whole because of the 
misplaced confidence in the efficacy of torture. Most students of this 
subject admit that torture can lead to the truth. But what Boal/Bigelow 
fail to show is how often the CIA deluded itself into believing that 
torture was a magic bullet, with disastrous results.

That raises a key question: With so much evidence of so many failures -- 
practical, legal and moral -- of the CIA's "detainee program," why did 
Boal and Bigelow fail to include it in the film?

My theory -- and it is just a theory -- is that Boal and Bigelow were 
seduced by their sources. It's a common problem. When a writer or 
filmmaker gets extraordinary access, one is inclined to believe the 
person(s) granting the access. There is a significant constituency at 
the CIA which would like to defend its use of EITs in the War on Terror. 
This group is exemplified by Jose Rodriguez, the man who was responsible 
for destroying the videotapes of the CIA's interrogations -- which 
included waterboarding -- of Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. 
There are many, including me, who believe that Rodriguez should have 
been prosecuted for destroying evidence of possible crimes. (The DOJ 
declined to prosecute him.) Instead, he is now promoting his book in 
which he claims that waterboarding worked.

Many have been won over by the views of Rodriguez and those like him who 
suggest that what the CIA did was tough, but necessary and smart. It was 
none of those things. Yet by immersing us only in the world of the CIA, 
Boal and Bigelow don't show us the perspective we need as viewers to see 
the lunacy of the CIA's "detainee program." If you want to reveal how 
tall a man is, you don't shoot him in limbo; you must show him in 
relation to others. Likewise, how can viewers of ZD30 judge the CIA's 
record if they can't see how others were shocked by its cruelty, 
cowardice and stupidity of EITs. In the film, long after the torture of 
"Ammar," an agent hands Maya a file folder with the real name of 
al-Kuwaiti. "If only I had this years ago," says Maya. Because Maya is 
the glamorous heroine of the film, we identify with her and wonder about 
the inefficiency of her colleagues. But where is the character who 
wonders if Maya had spent less time slapping detainees around and more 
time scanning actual evidence -- as the FBI did -- she might have got to 
bin Laden's courier much sooner.

I suspect that Boal and Bigelow's sources at the CIA shared some of the 
views of Rodriguez. Of course, without knowing who those sources are, 
it's impossible to say. What we do know, from correspondence that has 
been released, is that the CIA did grant extraordinary access to Boal 
and Bigelow.

While there is nothing wrong with access per se, what is concerning is 
the way that the CIA -- and other military agencies -- grant selective 
access. Sometimes that's because of the star status of the project. The 
letters show how much the agency loved Hurt Locker (one of the rare 
times I agree with the perspective of the CIA). Other times, it's 
because the agency is satisfied that the filmmakers have a vision that 
is "consistent" with that of the CIA. Whatever the reason, this will 
become a bigger and bigger concern for movies based on factual events 
(be they films with actors or documentaries). Why not give all American 
citizens to declassified information?

Whatever happened on ZD30, we can be sure of one thing. The CIA PR team 
must be delighted, particularly those who were supporters of the EIT 
"Program." As former CIA director Michael Hayden noted, "I was happy the 
film was in the hands of such talent."

Boal and Bigelow, by all accounts, are frustrated that the discussion of 
their film has been bogged down in a political debate that they want no 
part of. I would say, in response, that the debate is not political at 
all. The subject of torture is one of the great moral issues of our 
time. Boal and Bigelow shouldn't run from it. They should engage it.

After all, the goal of Osama bin Laden was to provoke Americans to 
undermine our most fundamental values. Why is it not important -- in a 
film about the hunt for bin Laden -- to confront whether we, as 
Americans, allowed ourselves, in our lust for revenge, to lose our 
moral, legal and political bearings instead of trying, as Tony 
Lagouranis, an Army interrogator, told me, "to be as good as we can be."
See more stories tagged with:
zero dark thirty [3],
torture [4]
Source URL: 

[1] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/
[2] http://www.alternet.org/authors/alex-gibney
[3] http://www.alternet.org/tags/zero-dark-thirty
[4] http://www.alternet.org/tags/torture
[5] http://www.alternet.org/%2Bnew_src%2B

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